‘Rewarding’: Businesses that pivoted to make masks, gowns reflect after first wave of COVID-19

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When COVID-19 reached the Maritimes, dozens of businesses pivoted their operations to make personal protective equipment for those who need it. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, now that the first wave has passed, the demand for those products has decreased – Oct 30, 2020

When COVID-19 first reached the Maritimes, the owners of MacKenzie Atlantic had just purchased a massive robot and two computer numerical control machines for their welding, fabrication and machining business.

It was a major investment whose installation and use was stalled by the pandemic, creating uncertainty for the Nova Scotia-born business run by husband and wife duo Matthew and Carmen MacKenzie.

“That was the scariest part, was not knowing when we were going to be able to actually have it hooked up,” said Matthew MacKenzie, the machine now whirring away in the building behind him in Musquodoboit Harbour, N.S.

“Being able to pivot and do the face shields was really helpful. We were able to put our focus somewhere else and we were able to bring some revenue back into the company to help offset that risk.”

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Dozens of Maritime businesses switched gears during the first wave of COVID-19 to deliver critical personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line workers and others.

But now that case numbers have dropped in the region, the demand has subsided, too.

“The feedback that we’re getting now from most of the people that we sold to in the first wave is that they’re good,” said Cynthia Outred, sales director for WearWell Garments in Stellarton, N.S., which made medical gowns and face masks in the spring.

“They ordered a lot on the front end and I think Nova Scotia fared relatively well, so most of our customers still have a supply.”

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It was relatively simple for WearWell — which normally makes lab coats, scrubs and protective gear for the trades — to pull out a pattern and print PPE, said Outred. While that production has been paused, she added, it’s been a “great experience” the company is willing to repeat.

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“I think (the staff) did feel they were part of a solution and I think that’s an important thing for anyone in the face of crisis to feel like you’re on the right side of who’s helping.”

WearWell is now in talks to become the Canadian manufacturer of a face shield that’s currently produced in Europe.

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Bouctouche Bay Industries (BBI) Group in Saint-Édouard-de-Kent, N.B. has also found success with PPE. The company, which produces aquaculture and agriculture equipment, has decided to add face shields to its line of products permanently.

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Since April, BBI has jumped from producing one kind of face shield to seven kinds of face shields, at a production rate of 23,000 per 24 hours.

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“We just sent out third shipment to the U.K. and doctors, nurses, hair dressers, you name it — everyone who’s using our equipment is just saying it’s very comfortable, very easy to where and they like what we’re doing, which is great news for us,” said president and CEO Steen Gunderson.

“Whatever comes, we’re ready to deliver Canadian PPE to the Canadian public and the professionals who absolutely need it.”

A Bouctouche Bay Indutries employee works on the raw materials for a protective face mask in Saint Edouard de Kent, N.B. in April 2020. The company is one of thousands that have pivoted their business model to meet the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy: BBI Group

In Musquodoboit Harbour, between April and July, MacKenzie Atlantic produced more than one million face shields for front line workers and the public.

It was able to hire 50 additional, temporary staff to complete those orders, and develop a face “Shield in a Box” product that it keeps on hand for those in need during the second wave.

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Its robot from Sweden is now up and running, producing the company’s regular products, and MacKenzie said they’re on standby to pivot back to PPE if the demand returns.

“We wanted to make sure we were going to be there and help in any way that we could,” he explained. “It was incredibly rewarding for myself, our family, all of our staff here, their families, and I think overall for Nova Scotia it was great.”

As of Friday, there were six active cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia and as of Thursday, 41 in New Brunswick.

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